|Edward Zwick’s Glory is one of the great war films and perhaps the greatest film ever made about the American Civil War. While there are dozens of films stretching back to the silent era that are either about the Civil War or use the war as a historical backdrop, Glory was the first to focus on the considerable involvement of black soldiers, which gives it a unique perspective that distinguishes it from other Civil War movies, but also allows it to seamlessly interweave the social and racial issues of the era with the military narrative. The film’s basic facts are drawn from two history books, Lincoln Kirstein’s Lay This Laurel and Peter Burchard’s One Gallant Rush, but more important is the use of more than 200 letters written by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young Harvard-educated son of wealthy abolitionists who, after having already served two years in the war, was asked to command one of the first regiments of black soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.|
Shaw is portrayed by Matthew Broderick, who at the time was still primarily identified with his iconic teen performances in films like WarGames (1983) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Thus, his casting was quite risky, although entirely accurate given that Shaw was only 23 years old when he enlisted. To his credit, Broderick gives an outstanding performance in embodying a complex, often unsure man whose lofty ideals about equality and freedom often come into conflict with both the realities of the world and his responsibilities as a military leader whose tactics, however justifiable, often tap into the well of persecution his soldiers have endured as black men in a slave-owning society.
This is depicted most acutely in the powerful sequence in which Private Trip (Denzel Washington in his first Oscar-winning performance), a particularly embittered and often hostile former slave, has been caught trying to desert, the punishment for which is a lashing in front of the other men. For a white soldier, such a punishment is deeply humiliating, but for a black soldier it is even more degrading because it returns him to the role of the slave, which is physically embodied in the massive scars across Trip’s back. Zwick stages the scene by alternating slow zooms into the faces of Trip and Shaw as the lashing commences, with Trip’s stoic facial posture, a mixture of intense pride and even more intense resentment, slowly melting beneath and agony of his punishment, while Shaw’s face slowly registers the dawning realization of the unnecessary cruelty he has just inflicted, which is compounded even further in the following scene when he learns that Trip was not trying to desert, but was in fact out looking for a pair of shoes, a basic necessity that the racist quartermaster has been denying the black troops.
The narrative of Glory follows a familiar war-movie arc, introducing us to the major characters and then following them through basic training and eventually into war; however, this arc is complicated by the racism and prejudice that the soldiers encounter every day, whether it be from the military higher-ups who refuse to allow them to fight and instead use them as manual labor or their fellow white soldiers who are disgusted to see “coloreds” wearing a uniform. The battle scenes are monumental in both their intensity and their realism, and Zwick establishes the visual stakes in the film’s very first scene at the Battle of Antietam Creek, which invokes the iconic daguerreotypes of Civil War dead, but first pummels you with such grisly images as a soldier’s head exploding to immediately tear away any sense of romanticism. War is hell, regardless of your color.
In addition to Shaw, the 54th is led by Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), a fictional friend of Shaw’s who at first questions the rationale behind employing black soldiers, but ultimately grows into the role of Shaw’s conscience, constantly reminding him that there is more at stake than just military victory. While the tendency in films about race relations is to tell the story exclusively from the white perspective, screenwriter Kevin Jarre (Tombstone) wisely alternates Glory’s narrative emphasis between Shaw and the soldiers under his command; and, as the film draws to its bloody climax at the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold guarding Charleston Harbor, the focus subtly shifts to the black soldiers, highlighting their final night on earth as a transcendental communal experience that gives added emotional and spiritual power to their subsequent sacrifice.
There were more than 600 men in the 54th, but Jarre chose to create a handful of fictional characters to represent different, often conflicting aspects of the black experience in 19th century America. Trip represents the self-styled rebellious “buck” whose greatest fight is within himself, and his inverse is John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), a stolid and distinguished older man who sees the evils of the world with great clarity but refuses to lose hope in the potential for human good. We also find opposing experiences in the formal eloquence of Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), a highly educated born freedman who worked for Shaw’s family before joining the infantry, and the stuttering of Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy), an uneducated former slave of great faith and optimism. While these characters are easily reducible to various symbolic types, their respective actors so fully embody them as three-dimensional human beings that their humanity always comes first. It is not until retrospect that we recognize the neatly defined roles they play in creating a microcosm of black life.
Zwick had more than a decade of experience producing television shows, but he had only directed a single film, the Brat Pack-filled romantic drama …About Last Night (1986). Thus, he seemed an unlikely candidate to helm a fiery Civil War epic, but as his subsequent films, including Legends of the Fall (1994), The Last Samurai (2003), and Defiance (2008), attest, Zwick is naturally drawn to historical grandeur and violence, both physical and emotional. His experiences working in more intimate forms of narrative on television have arguably aided his grander cinematic endeavors by reminding him of the importance of the human element, which is constantly in danger of being lost amidst the sturm und drang. Glory is a quintessential example of that deft balancing act, maintaining the human dimension even in the most heated moments of battle, and it remains Zwick’s best film to date, a magnificent, soul-stirring opus that earns its righteousness with sweat and blood.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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